It was 12.48am on Monday morning, and a fully crewed train with passengers on board was preparing to leave Sydney’s Central station, bound for Wyong on the New South Wales central coast.
That’s when an order arrived for the service to be cancelled.
A few minutes earlier, at 12.43am, the chief executive of Sydney Trains, Matt Longland, had ordered the immediate shutdown of the state’s entire rail network.
Following a weekend of increasingly fraught negotiations with the Rail, Tram and Bus Union over planned industrial action, the senior bureaucrat’s decision would see Sydney’s entire train network closed all day Monday, leaving thousands of commuters across NSW stranded and costing the state’s economy millions of dollars.
Meanwhile, the state’s transport minister, David Elliott, was at home asleep. It was only when he woke up on Monday morning that he learned about the shutdown, Elliott has insisted, despite evidence revealed in Fair Work Commission hearing transcripts showing the department had been planning for the possibility of a shutdown since at least the previous Thursday.
The release of the transcripts was enough for the NSW opposition leader, Chris Minns, to call for Elliott to be sacked, the first time Labor has called for a minister to lose their job since Minns took over from Jodi McKay in May last year.
Minns said it was implausible to suggest Elliott had not known the shutdown was coming.
“At the very least, he’s an incompetent minister, not in charge of his portfolio,” he said.
And while the premier, Dominic Perrottet, insists he retains confidence in the transport minister, not all of his colleagues agree. Many were bemused by Elliott’s survival this week.
“It’s a fucking debacle,” one government MP told the Guardian.
“As far as a defence goes, ‘I was asleep’ has to rank quite highly in terms of pure incompetence.”
No stranger to making headlines
It’s by no means the first time that Elliott has caused headaches for the government. In his previous role as the state’s police minister, he made headlines for telling a 17-year-old P-plater that he “worked for the cops” during a road incident in 2019; posting photographs online of himself firing two banned firearms; and defending the practice of strip-searching children as young as 12.
That Elliott has managed to survive has much to do with factional convenience. A key member of the Liberal party’s centre-right faction, a demotion from cabinet would be difficult for Perrottet to achieve without setting off an unwanted internal brawl.
In a government dominated by moderates and Perrottet’s right faction, Elliott’s position is important at a time when the NSW division of the Liberal party is beset by a maelstrom of factional infighting.
There is also no doubt Elliott inherited a troubled portfolio. After 11 years in power the NSW government has found itself dealing with multiple transport debacles, from project delays and cracked trams to an ongoing controversy over a $40bn rail asset holding entity which saw the auditor general delay signing off on the state’s finances for months.
Elliott has made no secret of his displeasure at the department’s recent history and he quickly sought to take ownership of the long-running dispute with the union after he was sworn in as minister.
On Christmas Day he was quoted in a Daily Telegraph story blasting his own officials for a “ludicrous” refusal to allow transport staff to wear shorts to work and vowing to shake up the portfolio.
Such confidence apparently extended to his staff. In a post on social media his chief of staff, Tanya Raffoul, wrote glowingly that Elliott was best placed to negotiate an end to the industrial dispute..
“As he turns his attention to a portfolio riddled with industrial action, delays and infrastructure issues, I’m certain that he is the only cabinet minister who could successfully tackle this portfolio,” she wrote after he was sworn in.
Communications between Elliott’s staff and the department could prove crucial in who gets held accountable for Monday’s fiasco.
The minister’s denial of any knowledge of the shutdown has left colleagues – and reportedly the premier himself – furious. Perrottet made his displeasure known when asked about Elliott’s decision to go to bed as the situation evolved on Sunday night.
“The minister will reflect on that and realise that all ministers are available 24/7,” he said. “That’s my expectation as premier.”
But it has also stretched the credulity of some government insiders, who say that it’s unlikely such a major decision would have been made without the knowledge of the minister or his office.
Who knew what is now the subject of an internal investigation, due to the legislative requirement for the department to inform the minister before making substantial decisions regarding the network.
In a statement to the parliament this week, Elliott conceded the department believed it had fulfilled its requirements before making the decision.
“Transport considered it had discharged those obligations, however my office remained of the view until approximately 1.30am that there would be a significant disruption to services but not a total network shutdown,” he said.
“What is clear is that the communication between the department and my office was not sufficiently precise.”
Elliott has insisted that the 10.43pm text message from Raffoul saying he had been “briefed” does not prove he was aware of the shutdown, because it only referred to “significant interruptions”.
He also appeared to goad Labor on that fact in parliament this week. When Minns first revealed the existence of the text during question time on Tuesday, Elliott challenged him to show written evidence contradicting his claim that he did not know about the closure: “I have not seen anything in writing to suggest that what I have said in the house is any different,” he said.
A day later, Elliott told parliament that after a meeting with Perrottet and the NSW transport secretary, Rob Sharp, he had been told “that in future [any] significant developments in the activities of the department must be the subject of a written briefing and written endorsement”.
The evidence released by the Fair Work Commission raises further questions.
Affidavits filed during the tense weekend negotiations reveal that as early as Thursday last week the department had flagged the possibility of a shutdown if the industrial action went ahead.
Ahead of the planned action, a risk assessment conducted by Sydney Trains completed on 16 February concluded that the “risks associated” with the union’s planned action meant the rail system would need to be shut down. While Elliott has said it was only a “contingency”, the existence of the document places further pressure on his version of events.
“The transport minister needs to go, otherwise there is absolutely no accountability in the NSW government at all,” Minns said.